Dyslexia: Let's drop the clichés and start recognising the cost, the challenges and the condition's different forms – Alastair Stewart

Anyone with auditory dyslexia might have a touch of athazagoraphobia, the fear of forgetting someone or something. And, on top of that, a smidgen of allodoxaphobia, the fear of other people's opinions.

Some believe Albert Einstein had dyslexia but the idea that the condition makes you a creative savant is an infuriating cliché (Picture: Keystone/Getty Images)
Some believe Albert Einstein had dyslexia but the idea that the condition makes you a creative savant is an infuriating cliché (Picture: Keystone/Getty Images)

This is not to be facetious; anyone who suggests, hints, or thinks that individuals with dyslexia are "stupid" knows less than nothing. But the disability does have knock-on personal and professional effects and does not just manifest when reading a book.

While researching this piece, I stumbled on a Quora thread titled "Can you be incredibly smart but suffer from something like dyslexia or ADHD?" The writer opened with: "Sorry for writing anonymously, but I'm not comfortable writing about it otherwise."

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You can only weep that in 2022 these questions are still so widely asked. It's estimated that up to one in every ten people in the UK has some degree of dyslexia. One in six adults has the reading level of an 11-year-old.

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But it is wholly misunderstood. With all respect in the world, it would seem that a garden-variety cliché holds that reading and writing are the only affected areas. But not all types are the same, which makes it all the harder for some to tell the difference between a disability and a person they might lazily call “stupid”.

It is also infuriating cliché that having dyslexia makes you a creative savant. Sir Jackie Stewart and Richard Branson are the regular "poster boys" for the condition. Historians now suggest Leonardo da Vinci and Albert Einstein possessed the tell-tale signs of dyslexia. Many sources say that Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei and Thomas Edison are thought to have had it, too.

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For the rest of us, horror stories abound of employers, friends, and even family saying, "oh, you must have dyslexia”. It is a punchline or as ugly a slur as "retard". Dyslexia varies in severity, from chronic speech development challenges to severe auditory processing issues. ADHD, OCD, dyspraxia and dyscalculia can also be muddled into the mix.

"The economy, stupid" is a phrase that James Carville coined in 1992 for the Bill Clinton presidential campaign. Let's make a new one: "It's dyslexia, stupid." The onus is on our progressive society to, well, progress past good and bad dyslexic stereotypes.

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Across the world, five to ten per cent of the population suffers from dyslexia. Eighty-five per cent of parents of a dyslexic child report their son or daughter feels embarrassed about it. That shame travels from childhood to adolescence and into the working world. A fear of forgetting things in public, and the subsequent fear of people's opinions, are the constant companions of people with dyslexia.

I have auditory dyslexia, and my short-term memory fluctuates at best. I have a daily to-do list on my computer and a back-up on my phone. Group coffee orders terrify me. Dividing up a party restaurant bill is horrifying. I require mild sedation for public speaking because I am so petrified I will forget my lines. I triple-check my seat number on planes when I'm already strapped in.

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Dyslexia is recognised as a disability under the Equality Act 2010, so employers have a legal duty to provide reasonable adjustments for dyslexic staff members. Dyslexia seems to be a rare instance of legislation being ahead of the cultural understanding of a disability.

The law matters because individuals with the condition are considered to be at a severe disadvantage in the workplace compared to those who do not suffer from it. Declaring it presents a challenge and a taboo. But the need to do so will remove a perception of incompetence when only reasonable adaptations are needed. The right is invaluable because dyslexia is an invisible disability.

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Once I was in a group who were amazed I was dyslexic and writing for The Scotsman. To them, it was a contradiction and surely "extra work for sub-editing teams”.

Too often, the word 'dyslexia' is used as an umbrella term, ignoring the varieties of the disability and the bespoke adaptations required. A logic prevails that because something is harder to do, people with dyslexia cannot do it. Nothing about my dyslexia affects my desire to read, write, and learn new things, as the general zeitgeist would have it.

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There is a hidden cost to dyslexia. Grammarly and web note clipping apps are as invaluable to me as a pen and paper – but they are adaptations to level the playing field and cost money. There is a raft of others depending on the severity of dyslexia.

Books on the Hill, an independent bookshop in North Somerset, established a publishing house to fund and produce larger font books aimed at dyslexic readers. The social enterprise was launched in response to the absence of dyslexia-friendly formatted fiction for adults in UK bookshops. The team has been crowdfunding to publish more titles in their range, including Blood Tool, by Edinburgh-based writer Snorri Kristjanssan and Sharpe's Skirmish by Bernard Cornwell.

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Dr Alistair Sims, founder and manager of Books on the Hill, said: "For years, we have had customers tell us of relatives who love stories and would love to read but have endured a lifetime of being called stupid."

The hidden cost of dyslexia is not just in supporting people but in helping them enjoy things like reading. People with dyslexia, if they are not correctly supported, struggle with low self-esteem, stress, behavioural problems, and underachievement.

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The work of Dyslexia Scotland to support people with dyslexia in workplaces also extends to helping them accept a condition that touches on all aspects of their lives.

This Dyslexia Awareness Week, from 31 October to 6 November, let's elevate the conversation beyond how hard it is to have dyslexia or some famous folk who have done so well despite their disability. Let's talk about the brass tacks cost, the challenge, and the varieties of dyslexia. Only then can we change attitudes, home lives and workplaces for the better.

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